Bonfires in 1933 (Part 2)

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University libraries were not the only institutions to be attacked. The Institut für Sexualwissenshaft (Institute for Sexuality) was ransacked. The institute was ran by German scholar and researcher Magnus Hirschfeld and was one of the first centers in Germany created for researching sexuality, treating venereal diseases, and providing sexual education marriage counseling. Hirschfeld’s research dealt primarily with understanding homosexuality, and Hirschfeld was an advocate for acceptance and equality. On May 6, 1933, four days before a largely coordinated book burning throughout Germany, Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked by students sympathetic to the Nazi party. SA members finished the destruction, confiscating and burning approximately 10,000 books.

Not only did Jews, gays, modernists, and political opponents face censorship, but even in 1933, many average Germans also faced and feared home searches. Instead of losing everything, some families chose to destroy the “forbidden” books, magazines, art, and music they owned before the Nazi did and sequentially prosecuted them under the new laws. Germans also found it necessary to eliminate any evidence that would tie them to a non-Nazi party, so they were forced to destroy letters, membership cards, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, etc. They had to choose between hiding their identities often shown through aesthetic and literary choices or facing physical abuse, prison, or even death. Sometimes with minimal success.

Censorship in 1933 did not end with burning already published books. The Nazis, under the guise of an open discussion, led a coercive campaign against publishers and dictated what could and couldn't be published.  Noncompliant publishers and booksellers faced severe reprimands, including vandalism, boycotts, monetary penalties, and potential imprisonment. The bans left no topic untouched; books about history, law, education, communism, democracy, sexuality—anything deemed too liberal and progressive—was banned from entering the market. Yet unlike the very public book burnings, the belles-lettres list was to be kept secretive. Publishers were instructed to make up excuses, including slow printing or lost manuscripts, to explain accepted yet unprinted books. The reason was simple: avoid bad publicity in other countries in order to provide the illusion that Germany was a strong country that had resolved its political issues (Barbian, 2010, pp. 29-30). For the Nazis, more bad press internationally was synonymous with an invitation to foreign cultures to become more concerned about Germany’s affairs; instead the Nazis wanted a secretive state that could become powerful without foreign-influences.

The promise of a strong German culture was a façade of extreme nationalism, which led to loss of knowledge, innovation, and technological advances (provided that all weaponry and killing machinery is disregarded). Germany’s evolving culture and openness to new ideas was lost because the Nazis instilled fear in the German populace. Ironically, students, professors, universities, and librarians answered Hitler’s call to censor “un-German” literature in an effort to reclaim truth and knowledge. Compliance and ignorance of the German public allowed the Nazis to use censorship to its complete capacity—destroying the texts and messages of the Nazis’ critics, creating propaganda messages to brainwash citizens into even further compliance, and finally omitting many facts and actions that the party was taking. The Nazis’ calculated efforts created one of the most effective and intimidating censorship mechanisms, which cost the world many lives and many ideas.

First, one book burned. Then many voices… silenced.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Barbian, Jan-Pieter. The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany: Books in the Media Dictatorship. Translated by Kate Sturge. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.

Bartov, Omer. Mirror of Destruction: War, Genocide, and Modern Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Bleuel, Hans Peter. Sex and Society in Nazi Germany, edited by Heinrich Fraenkel. Translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn. New York: Dorset Press, 1996.

Caso, Frank. Censorship. New York: Facts on File, 2008.

Dose, Ralf. Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. Translated by Edward H. Willis. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014.

Hill, Leonidas E. “Nazi Attack on ‘Un-German’ Literature.” In The Holocaust and the Book, edited by Johnathan Rose, 9-46.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Knuth, Rebecca. Libricide: The Reime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Ritchie, James M. “The Nazi Book-Burning.” Modern Language Review 83, no. 3 (1988): 627-643.

Rummel, RJ. Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992.

Steig, Margaret F. Public Libraries in Nazi Germany. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1992.

Swett, Pamela E. “Selling Sexual Pleasure in 1930s Germany.” In Pleasure and Power in Nazi Germany, edited by Pamela E. Swett, Corey Ross, & Fabrice d’Almeida, 39-66. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.